Continued from page 1
One of virtues of MRI pictures is that they are based on physical principles totally different from those responsible for creating CT pictures. Thus, MRI is good (or not so good) at showing different things than CTs. Another virtue is that MRIs can slice and dice brain at different angles, while CTs slices are limited to just horizontal plane. Yet another virtue of MRIs is that they are much better than CTs at imaging most diseases of spine. Finally, MRIs are much more flexible than CTs: new bells, whistles and capabilities are being added all time.
To patient, experiences of having a CT and of having an MRI greatly resemble each other. In both cases patient lies horizontally on a flat table that moves into and out of an opening in scanner that resembles a giant doughnut-hole. The doughnut-hole in MRI machine is narrower, so claustrophobic patients need to inform their doctors if this might be a problem. The MRI machine is also noisier: a loud sound is created each time its radio-frequency coils turn on and off. For each kind of scan technologist might stick a needle in patient's vein to administer contrast-material.
Both tests are otherwise painless and are very safe with certain exceptions. Pregnant women who need a scan might have to do without one for fear of exposing fetus to excessive x-rays in case of CT scan or to an excessive magnetic field in case of MRI. If push comes to shove, woman is more likely to receive a CT scan because her abdomen can be draped with a lead shield that blocks passage of most x-rays, while there is no good method for blocking magnetic field produced by an MRI machine.
A circumstance in which MRIs are simply not done is when patient has a cardiac pacemaker. This is because MRI machine's magnet might disrupt pacemaker and stop heart. No image is so necessary and valuable that this risk would be worth taking. Another circumstance in which an MRI is avoided is when patient is critically ill. An unstable patient can be adequately monitored and supported while receiving a CT scan, but not while receiving an MRI.
Depending on nature of patient's problem, doctor will usually order just one of two types of scans and not other, but in selected cases magic of both kinds of scan might be needed.
(C) 2005 by Gary Cordingley
Gary Cordingley, MD, PhD, is a clinical neurologist, teacher and researcher who works in Athens, Ohio. For more health-related articles see his website at: http://www.cordingleyneurology.com